The previous, most common belief was that the Ukrainian political scene had rallied behind the President for the duration of the war. However, Ukrainian politicians have only tamed their emotions and acknowledged Zelensky’s supremacy for the time being. Today they have begun considering their political future and cautiously exploring other options.
Five hundred forty-one days of war have passed. Were there 541 days without politics in Ukraine? NO. The struggle for power, influence, and building popularity among the electorate has remained. However, this aspect of political life proceeds in their specific war rhythm. The key actors of the Ukrainian political scene are already thinking about constructing the future post-war world. Although the stage design and new political performers are not yet determined, the focus and point of reference stay with Volodymyr Zelensky. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Ukrainian politics has recently awakened from its wartime lethargy.
Emotions, ambitions, and reluctance towards Zelensky have been simmering beneath the surface. Ukrainian politicians know that the unity and solidarity shown after February 2022 were superficial. Some politicians genuinely believe it’s not the time for disputes and choose to support the authorities, while others do this tactically. They decided that today the power camp is too strong and has such great social trust that any attempts to criticize the government are doomed to failure in advance. Yet, in recent weeks, political emotions have erupted on an unprecedented scale since the start of Russian aggression.
The catalyst was certainly the NATO Summit in Vilnius. It is widely believed that Zelensky has gone too far. Many believe he lifted hopes for Ukraine’s NATO membership way too high. On top of that, the counter-offensive bogged down, which, even in the opinion of the greatest optimists, will not bring the quick breakthrough the Ukrainians expected after listening to his assurances for months. In addition, the ongoing intense missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and blocked grain exports have caused apathy and questions from Kyiv’s politicians. As the idea of ending or freezing the war gains traction, it becomes clear that considering the war’s conclusion has a time stamp on the horizon. It shifted political emotions.
– For two days, the country was clinging to a belief in the positive outcome of the NATO Summit in Vilnius. I do not see where those who claim that Vilnius was successful for Ukraine have prevailed – this is how former President Petro Poroshenko criticized Zelensky.
The main political competitor of the ruling camp before the outbreak of the war was the previous President, whose party, European Solidarity, was gaining popularity in the polls. A week before the Russian aggression, the KIIS (Kyiv International Institute of Sociology) survey showed that Poroshenko’s party led with almost 23% of the vote. In comparison, the Servant of the People had 16.4%. In the presidential polls, Poroshenko was closely behind Zelensky. However, the polls were frozen due to the war, and Poroshenko openly admitted that it was time for national unity and that he would not attack Zelensky.
Zelensky has the support of over 90% of the Ukrainians and dominates the political scene. The authorities control the media conglomerate of most TV stations called Telemarathon, except for Espresso, Priamyi, and Channel 5. The last two belong to Poroshenko.
Poroshenko has built an image of being a respected diplomat by supporting volunteers, buying military equipment, and appearing on global media like CNN. He is too experienced to confront strong Zelensky under challenging circumstances at the moment.
His followers criticized those in power on social media and through opinion leaders. Earlier this year, political scientist Oleksandr Zinchenko and military expert Yuri Butusov spread a theory Zelensky’s election accelerated the Russian aggression due to the country’s unpreparedness and traitors within its institutions. Poroshenko now openly criticizes Zelensky for his incompetent diplomacy. General Serhiy Krivonos and others blame politicians and Zelensky’s pressure to start operations on the frontline too quickly for the lack of success in the counter-offensive. However, Poroshenko is not the only concern for the power camp. Additionally, a conflict with Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko has been ongoing for months.
Achilles’ heel, the weak spot: the party
It may seem like former President Petro Poroshenko is the most controversial politician against Zelensky’s administration, but in reality, it is Kyiv’s Mayor, Vitaly Klitschko. At the beginning of this year, Klitschko strongly reacted to the court’s decision to remove Chernihiv’s Mayor, Vladislav Atroshenko, who had business and political ties to Klitschko. The most concerning aspect of this decision is the precedent it sets for removing municipal leaders through the judiciary.
Klitschko is considered a potential rival by Zelensky’s circle due to criticism of the presidential center for neglecting the construction of shelters in Kyiv. But he has a lot to lose. Media outlets, more than on one occasion, published astonishing information indicating that Zelensky’s team has been working on ways to remove Klitschko from power in the capital. However, he gained notable popularity, received oligarch support, and served as the host of the largest Ukrainian metropolis during the war. Additionally, Klitschko consistently builds a political environment around himself; even the city’s mayors and members of the Servant of the People party gravitate toward him.
Moreover, the party itself is the President’s Zelensky’s Achilles heel. The recent scandal involving Defense and Security Commission member Yuri Aristov exposed his luxurious vacation in the Maldives. It is not the first time politicians have enjoyed extravagant wartime travel. Additionally, news has surfaced about a group of deputies who purchased luxury cars after the outbreak of the war.
Zelensky reacted by ordering more discipline in the party. He also banned MPs from traveling abroad. However, these measures only partially address the issue. From the start, Servant of the People needed more discipline and was made up of inexperienced individuals hungry for power and privileges. Additionally, during the war, it was a collection of factions tied to oligarchs or regional cliques.
Another potential competitor comes from the ranks of Zelensky’s political circle. Former Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, Dmytro Razumkov, a co-author of Zelensky’s electoral success, left Servant of the People before the war and was seeking his place in politics. Until recently, he had been quiet, but now he appears more frequently in the media. It is another sign of political revival. Speculations about post-war politics and elections fill the media. In a recent interview for Ukrainian Pravda, an influential politician from the power camp, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksiy Danilov, has had difficulty responding straight to whether elections are possible soon. He admits there are challenges in getting citizens to vote during the war.
– There are many unanswered questions. Danilov insists that fair elections are a must. However, he says no one will allow elections to be conducted unjustly without denying the possibility of holding them.
These signs increase political tension in Kyiv. The Ukrainian political “X” factor bothers participants, including military and war heroes, who all talk about it. Many aspire to enter politics after the war. Virtually every political environment flirts with Generals these days. Valery Zaluzhny, the Chief of Staff, is being under a microscope by Zelensky and Poroshenko, but he is keeping his distance from politics for now.
It is a high probability that people in uniforms will enter the world of politics. If so, which ones and how many? Will they build a unified political environment with ideas for the state, or disperse among parties and bring chaos, as happened after 2014?
Today, Zelensky faces a particular risk due to his recent image change. He has adopted patriotic positions and become an advocate for ideas he once opposed during the 2019 election campaign. At that time, he competed with Poroshenko but conspicuously ignored the issue of war. He emerged victorious by appealing to an electorate tired of fighting and Poroshenko’s overly patriotic rhetoric, and today he inherits that same challenge.
In times of war, it’s natural and plays to his advantage. People tend to trust and rally around their leader, despite doubts. However, after the war, Zelensky may face criticism for resembling Poroshenko. It’s unclear when the war will end, but many are already positioning themselves for the next political opportunity.
Translated by PEV